02/05/2015 | By Jill Farrell
Among the most significant issues facing higher education today are demographic changes, diversification of the student body, transformation of institutions and systems, rising demands for relevance, increased calls for cost sharing, globalization and internationalization. As a result of these changes, higher education institutions are responding to diverse student and institutional needs in countless ways, including curricular outreach of some universities, as they extend the reach of their actual programs across “land and sea” (borders/boundaries) through face to face contact with other cultures and nation-states in response to international community and regional needs, as well as economic realities.
Changing Nature of Higher Education
Higher education world-wide has evolved from an elite delivery system - a bastion of higher learning - to one that has been “massified” in order to guarantee increased access. Unprecedented changes in the nature and scope of higher education have occurred both in our own country and world-wide over the last several decades. Such changes are part of local, national and international news as colleges and universities world-wide have had to face one challenge after another. We have evolved to an era of universal access where limited and dwindling public funds are no longer sufficient to ensure an adequate and sustainable system. As the demand for higher education increases, institutions are forced to change curriculum, policies, and models of delivery. More and more countries are becoming “developed” as a result of our integrated world economy and this new reality is shaped by many forces, including new information and communications technology, the emergence of an international knowledge network, and the evolving role of the English language. Globalization has become a daily reality on the tertiary educational level.
In the United States these challenges are becoming quite obvious, due to the rising costs of higher education as a result of state and national government budget cutbacks of financial support, and due to the fact that students at least in our own country are now graduating with incredible debts (the average of which is currently almost $30,000) which will affect their career aspirations. At the same time we are seeing an internationalization of higher education occurring both in the United States and abroad, as more students choose foreign institutions for all or part of their tertiary education, and as tertiary institutions world-wide attempt to respond to the evolving institutional realities of gender, demographic and diversity changes of students, faculty and staff.
Major Changes in the Demographics of our Students
In the 21st century demographics continues to be a driving force for development and reform of tertiary education world-wide. Key trends include expanded student participation, specifically by women; more international, older and part-time students; and the need for greater access due to a broadening social base. At the same time that we are experiencing huge shifts in our ‘client base” we are also working in institutions which have simultaneously experienced the changes in backgrounds, international orientation and mobility of the academic professionals who serve in higher education. The activities and roles of the academic profession have become more diversified and specialized as a result of the market changes we are all experiencing, leading to a greater need for expanding numbers of college and university teachers that has resulted in an over-reliance on part-time instructors world-wide, i.e., adjuncts.
As mentioned above, we have become increasingly more cognizant of the student, recognizing that students are indeed the “most central stakeholder group” in higher education. Needs, aspirations, expectations and dreams, along with the demographics of students all over the world, have significantly changed in the last 15 years. As we respond to our “new realities” we have to make systemic and institutional adjustments due to changes in students and their backgrounds. These challenges continue to affect the manner in which students experience higher education, and we can see this as an opportunity or a threat. Student needs, shifting enrollment numbers, availability of services and resources, and access to technology all play into how students experience the curriculum. In turn, students are presented with new opportunities, along with corresponding challenges.
Response of Higher Education to Changes
For the most part, higher education institutions are all in the same boat - we are in constant competition for new markets, new students, new programs, often running to keep pace with the maintenance and renewal of existing populations and programs, while trying to develop and grow new programs and student bases. This “rapid and sustained demand” has led to the creation of new institutions, more for-profit private colleges and universities, as well as the introduction and extension of distance-learning options.
At the same time we are experiencing the changes brought on by globalization and internationalization in higher education, we are also witnessing the increasing “commoditization of higher education.” We have all become urgent organizations, and we must realize that to keep abreast, if not ahead of the institution down the street we MUST become more globally and internationally savvy, relevant, and located. This plays out in several major areas: sending students for study abroad and bringing international students to our campuses, on-line programs and distance delivery, and bringing our actual programs to international contexts. The latter is significant in that it assists in making higher education accessible to populations that might not otherwise have the opportunity to enroll in a face-to-face delivery format. For example, in the last 15 years, many countries in Asia, South America and the Caribbean have witnessed a significant increase in the number of for-profit colleges and technical schools who have set up shop to keep up with the increased demand for undergraduate tertiary education that the host country cannot supply. However, the greatest challenge is in the provision of advanced degrees and certificate programs for those who want to continue their professional education beyond the bachelor’s level, transition within their field or prepare for new careers. The challenge for any institution faced with expansion of curricular offerings to off-shore locations lies in the maintenance of academic rigor, program integrity, and successful student achievement regardless of location and delivery platform. Issues of quality should be paramount, both from an institutional perspective as well as from a regulatory perspective.
Institutions of higher education must be very careful in not being perceived as colonizers. We must be focused in asking what is best for us to bring here, what are our strengths, what do we have to offer, and in clearly saying “THIS is what we can do for you.” This will serve the greater community well, while helping us to meet our own institutional goals. We must be cognizant of globalization in general – for what purpose and for whose interests? I believe that those of us who are entering into this arena must take very seriously questions related to the impact of our curriculum in shaping and transforming students’ identities (as professionals and students), as well as the larger community. How can students’ experiences be used as a lens, or mirror, to examine, reflect and improve their curricular experiences, while shaping faculty practices as educators? I believe that when we “cross borders” we have to consider not only the culture, language, values and mores of those we will be serving, but what kind of footprint, or impact might we be having and is it serving the local community well, meeting its needs, addressing a need, OR is it self-serving?
My first-hand experience delivering off-shore programs has shown me that this work requires that you develop a network, a community support system that assists in helping to deliver and provide the resources that are required by students to adequately experience the curriculum. This is not easy, but can be managed, especially if we keep uppermost in our minds questions related to the overall experiences of our international students, those who come to our campuses as well as those enrolled in our off-shore programs. Considerations central to the discussion include the “what and how” of the curriculum, while also attending to concerns about alternative pedagogies and methodologies.
Those who are considering “crossing borders” with programs and students should give serious consideration to ensuring that the curriculum is relevant, culturally responsive, and organic – open to immersion and interpretation by a diverse body of students who represent our evolving demographic. Structures and delivery models utilized in the delivery of international and off-shore programs depend on faculty who bring unique perspectives and experiences to their teaching, advising, and coaching. At the same time, support staff who assist with bureaucratic activities, student services and delivery, and provide additional oversight and support are essential to the successful implementation and sustainability of off-shore programs. Most importantly, passion and unconditional dedication to successful implementation and development of programs over the long haul is dependent on an individual who is willing to persevere, persist, and hold onto a compelling vision for the impact that these initiatives have on the people and communities served.